Jan. 23 (Bloomberg) -- The U.S. Senate returns to work today smarting from record-low approval ratings for Congress and facing the prospect of a second year of little achievement before voters decide in November which party will control the chamber.
The four appointments President Barack Obama made during the holiday break angered a Republican minority with the power to block legislation and nominations for administration jobs that the Senate is charged with confirming. Obama’s decision to run against the policies of congressional Republicans in his re-election campaign heats up battles that have derailed legislation on jobs, the budget deficit and other issues.
Meanwhile, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has little incentive to move legislation that could split Democrats and complicate their re-election chances, as he works to shield the 16 incumbent Democratic senators who face voters this year.
“There’s not a lot of space for big legislation, and feelings between the parties will only sour as the elections near,” said Julian Zelizer, a history professor at Princeton University in New Jersey.
Accomplishing anything significant in the Senate requires cooperation because Democrats control the chamber with 53 votes, shy of the 60 needed to end a filibuster. Senate Republicans’ opposition to the Democrats’ agenda, along with partisan differences between the Senate and Republican-led House, last year led the nation to the brink of four government shutdowns and yielded the least productive year on record for Congress.
Just 80 laws were completed in 2011, the lowest number since the Congressional Record began keeping an annual tally in 1947. That’s well short of the previous record of 88 in 1995, which was also a year when a new Republican House majority countered a Democratic president’s agenda with one of its own.
Many of 2011’s new laws were small-ticket items -- 16 that named post offices and other federal buildings, and four that appointed members to the Smithsonian Institution’s Board of Regents.
That lack of accomplishment was noticed by the public, which gave Congress record-low levels of approval in opinion polls. A Washington Post-ABC News poll conducted Jan. 12-15 put approval of Congress at 13 percent, the worst ever in that survey. A Dec. 15-18 Gallup poll placed the figure at 11 percent, also a record.
Recess Appointment Fallout
The Senate’s first order of business, a vote set for this evening to confirm John Gerrard to a seat on the U.S. District Court in Nebraska, marks a pivotal moment. Gerrard is backed by Republicans, and by unanimous consent the Senate in December agreed to hold the vote.
Other nominees may have a tougher time. The agreement to vote to confirm Gerrard came before Obama’s Jan. 4 recess appointments, which included the installation of Richard Cordray as director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and three appointments to the National Labor Relations Board. Republicans are angered that Obama acted while Congress was holding “pro forma” sessions that have been used to forestall recess appointments.
Republicans have given little indication whether they will block other nominees -- or key measures -- in retaliation. Besides Gerrard, there are 78 nominations pending before the full Senate as Obama works to fill posts that include 18 other judicial picks, the comptroller of the currency, two spots on the Federal Trade Commission and two slots on the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp.’s board.
‘Disrespect’ for Constitution
Senator Charles Grassley of Iowa, the top Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, said Senate Republicans must weigh options that may include blocking other appointments.
“Anything ought to be on the table to bring attention to the disrespect the president has for the Constitution,” he said in a Jan. 10 interview.
Democrats say Obama made a smart move with the recess appointments as Republican obstruction had prevented the consumer financial agency and the labor relations board from functioning.
“It’s something that has been a frustration to all of us for a long time -- that a minority in the Senate can block the ability for the president to put in place people to manage the agencies in this country,” said Senator Patty Murray of Washington, a member of the Democratic leadership team. “We have to move forward and we need these agencies to be able to work to protect the American public’s interests.”
Former Utah Republican Senator Robert Bennett said Senate gridlock on appointments is a real risk.
“There are some who are just looking for an excuse to block everybody,” said Bennett, who is now a lobbyist. “The question is whether the others will now go along.”
The year’s Senate agenda is dominated by business carried over from last year. A payroll tax-cut extension that sparked a late-December standoff between the House and Senate is back on the list, after House Speaker John Boehner capitulated and agreed to the Senate’s plan for a two-month extension of a payroll tax cut for workers.
Congressional negotiators will seek to hammer out an extension for the rest of 2012 and decide whether to include expanded unemployment benefits and head off a reduction in Medicare payments to doctors.
Reid on Jan. 20 canceled a planned procedural vote this week on a Hollywood-backed anti-piracy bill, hurting the legislation’s prospects days after an online protest by Google Inc. and Wikipedia. The delay will allow more time to resolve industry concerns over the measure.
Other issues that could be on the Senate’s agenda include measures to reauthorize the nation’s aviation and highway programs. In the spring, Senate Democrats will resume debate over parts of Obama’s $447 billion jobs plan, said Adam Jentleson, a spokesman for Reid. Almost all the Democratic jobs proposals last year failed to clear the Senate.
Along with annual appropriations bills, another spending matter will dominate: whether to adjust agency spending reductions in a $1.2 trillion, 10-year across-the-board budget cut that is slated to begin at year’s end. That cut comes after a congressional supercommittee last fall couldn’t agree on a deficit-reduction plan.
Democrats have some momentum this year, said Steven Smith, a political science professor at Washington University in St. Louis. House Republicans may want to compromise in the debate over the payroll tax-cut extension, he said.
The November election will overshadow everything. Republicans may have an edge in winning Senate seats with the pending retirement of seven incumbent Democrats. Also, of the 33 Senate seats on the ballot in November, 23 are now held by Democrats, meaning Reid has to play defense.
“By and large, anything that divides Democrats, he’ll try to avoid,” Smith said.
Improvements in the economy could shake up campaign prospects and the Senate agenda. An unemployment rate that stood at 9.1 percent in August has been steadily declining, to 8.5 percent in December.
The low approval ratings for Congress may push lawmakers to seek achievements, said former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, a Democrat who was in the Senate from 1994 to 2005.
“It’s in the best interests of both parties, and the House and the Senate, to be able to demonstrate that they’ve accomplished a lot,” Daschle said. “That will be their biggest argument going back to the voters.”
Former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, a Republican, disagreed. He said the recess appointments have set a negative tone in the initial months of an election year, when bipartisan deals are most likely.
“The anger will subside with time,” said Lott. “But I think most Republicans feel that it was unconstitutional and bad for the relationship between the parties. I think it was very negative and it will add to the tensions of a political year.”
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